No-Fail Ground Covers: Pachysandra, Vinca Minor and Boston Ivy

May 15, 2009

Ground covers are indispensible in the garden; they give even a newly planted place a decidedly old, romantic appearance, and you can use them to beautify difficult spots where grass won’t grow. My favorite kinds are not rare or unusual, but tried-and-true: the upright, multi-leaved Pachysandra terminalis, the creeping, spring-blooming, blue or white Vinca minor, and the trailing or climbing Parthenocissus tricuspidata, commonly known as “Boston ivy.” These three, given plenty of care immediately after planting, never fail to form a thick, weed-proof (or nearly weed-proof) cloak of green in a single season.

Pachysandra. This 8-to12-inch plant will thrive under the most untoward conditions and in the poorest soil; it just fills out faster in good soil. It prefers dappled shade, but I’ve had success growing it in full sun. I pull up big sections from a neighbor’s old planting, cut roots back for easy handling, and just stick clumps or even clusters of unrooted pieces in newly loosened soil. Eight inches apart for single plants is about right, and such plantings begin to fill out by the end of summer. Next, a thick, 2-to 3-inch mulch is definitely needed, in order to keep down weeds until the bed is fully established. I use shredded leaves because I have them; shredded, composted wood chips or salt hay substitute are just as good. Unfailing attention to watering is absolutely essential for new plantings. If pachysandra dries out before it is established, it will wilt, not root, and you’ll have to replant with fresh pieces. Pachysandra grows between the boxwood and yew hedges in my rose garden; proof that it will tolerate long hours of sun, if provided ample moisture. I fertilize my pachysandra beds just as I do the boxwoods and yews: with Miracid.

Vinca minor (“Periwinkle,” “Myrtle”). The central terrace in my Serpentine Garden is “myrtlized,” as are two semi-circular lily beds on the north side of the potting shed. I love the blue flowers that appear from late-April through late-May. Vinca minor spreads even faster than pachysandra, and although lilies, tulips, and other bulbs can freely penetrate its dense green mat, few weeds can. My beagle, Lily, enjoys this verdant ground cover too; I’ve more than once found her napping in it. Vinca is slightly more tolerant of sun than pachysandra.

If you already have vinca on your property, you can transplant clumps about 15 inches apart. If you must buy plants, set the little sections fairly close, at about 8-inch intervals. For a good start in an area of heavy roots and poor soil, dig adequate holes for each and fill in with good soil or compost. A 3-to-4-inch mulch will keep down weeds until growth becomes rampant. Plants competing with tree roots in shade need a great deal of food (I use Miracid) and water.

Boston Ivy, my third favorite, actually likes full sun. It wants to climb, but lacking support, it will trail and spread. I have mine planted at the base of a stone wall, with the intention of having it climb and then spread over the first terrace in the Serpentine Garden. For the fastest coverage, set rooted cuttings about 15 inches apart, and keep them moist during summer. Mercifully, Boston ivy is not fussy about soil.

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Related Posts:
Home Page (daily gardening tips)
How To Find Free Mulch
Are Roses Really Worth The Effort?
Evergreens for Privacy Screens
Pachysandra: Exploding The “Shade-Only” Myth
Groundcovers in the House

Comments

  1. justin says:

    Your dog pulled me out of “lurkdom.” I have a beagle, too, named Oscar. Great, informative article.

  2. Justin (& Oscar!): Thanks for the comment. Hope to see you again.

  3. Donna says:

    That photograph of your beagle in the vinca minor made me fall in love with both. Now I am obsessed with ground covering. Donna

  4. Donna – Thanks for stopping by. Yes, life is good when one has a bed of Vinca minor and a beagle to sleep on it.

  5. Marion says:

    I want the long-eared ground cover pictured above. In multiples of eight! Oh, so lovely. Actually, what I do want is to get rid of all of my lawn, all 2 acres, both full sun and shade. You are inspiring me with this. Thank you.

  6. Marion – I, too, would happily get rid of my lawn, and all of the noisy machinery required to maintain it.

  7. Jed Swift says:

    Hi Kevin

    It is about time that you put a photo of the beloved LillyBelle on your blog! Maybe you should train her to take care of the ground cover. These photos are exquisite and it makes me relax just looking at them.

    My Best, Jed

  8. You’ve nailed it, Jed; groundcovers are soothing to the eye, and refreshing to the spirit.

  9. Dan Bauman says:

    Thanks for the tips on the vinca, hopefully the deer won’t eat them as they did my pacysandra.

  10. I have two problems and need some advice: I have a well established mature pachysandra bed more than 25 years old that still requires enormous maintenance: poison ivy, other weeds and numerous tiny maple saplings sprout up all over each year. What can I do.

    Second Problem: I am into the third spring of a new vinca minor bed I started and it does not seem to spread as fast as I had hoped.

    Thanks in advance for any advice

  11. Welcome, hborkowski2000: Second problem first. I suspect that your vinca is growing in poor, or compacted soil. If you can, dig out the existing vinca, and with a pick-axe break up and loosen the soil. If you see no worms, add either leaf mold, rotted cow manure or compost to the bed. Then replant your vinca. If tree roots are a problem, let me know, and I'll address that issue for you. Pachysandra dilemma to follow.

  12. Concerning pachysandra: I have the same problem with maple saplings, due to the ancient tree just beyond the rose garden. Each May, thousands of maple seeds drop into the pachysandra beds. Short of removing your maple tree, apply a germination-inhibitor like “Preen” throughout the bed. Otherwise, you will have the odious task of removing these saplings by hand, and what a job.

    Poison ivy. A good plan is to “paint” a few of this hateful vine's leaves with a liquid poison ivy killer. Find also the source of your P.I. growth, and “paint” it, too. You have my deepest sympathy, fellow gardener, and I hope these suggestions help. Let me know how things work out.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kevin,
    You mention that, “Vinca is slightly more tolerant of sun than pachysandra.” Will it do well in total shade? I want to plant it along a stone wall running over 200 feet. The area goes from dappled shade to total shade.
    Thanks for a great site,
    Deni

  14. Deni – Yes, Vinca minor will ALSO do well in deep shade. Loosen the soil first, and remember to water the young plants (or cuttings) for the remainder of summer.

    English ivy (Hedera helix)is another good evergreen groundcover for deep shade.

    I envy your 200 (plus) -foot-long stone wall!

  15. Kevin, Thanks for your feedback re my pachysandra and vinca beds. The vinca bed was well prepared before the planting so not compacted but it is around a very old and majestic oak tree. Dont know if the roots are a problem with oak trees. Is any particular mulch desirable or to be avoided with vinca bed. How should the vinca bed be fertilized. I will dig up a spot and check for worms. Pachysandra bed questions to follow.

  16. Kevin, Followup question on my pachysandra bed:I live in CT. What is the correct time to use preen and should it be used multiple times per year. Will the preen hurt the pachysandra at all. Can I use RoundUp carefully sprayed on the poison ivy and risk loss of some of the pachysandra or will it destroy alot of the pachysandra. Does preen play any role in poison ivy regrowth. Thanks in advance for all your help

  17. hborkowski2000: I wish that I could see your vinca bed/oak tree. Is it possible that the tree roots have grown so large that there is not enough soil or moisture available for your vinca? Is the groundcover thickest near the tree's trunk? If so, you might need to raise the soil level around the tree by 4-6 inches, and retain it with a ring of brick, stone or whatever matches for your house and garden style. This addition of soil will not hurt the tree. Many gardeners do this very thing.

    The only mulch to avoid is one composed of wood chips that have not decomposed sufficiently. My own preferred mulches are salt-hay substitute or finely shredded leaves.

    Both vinca and pachysandra are acid-loving plants, and thus Holly-Tone can be sprinkled around them, or you can give the foliage an ocassional spray of Miracid.

    Preen is safe to use with Vinca and Pach., either on top of the soil or on top of the mulch (or both), but do not let it sit on the leaves of plants. Reapply at three-week intervals. See my post in the Archives called “Pachysandra: Exploding the 'Shade-Only' Myth.”

    Regarding Round-Up: If you are concerned that Round-Up will kill not only your poison ivy but your groundcover too, the besty cure is to remove the dreadful vine by its roots. Wear heavy gloves when you do this. I don't know if Preen is effective on P.I. regrowth. Best to try it, and report back here!

    Sorry for my long-winded answers, but sometimes details are important!

  18. Rosaura from NY says:

    Do you have any suggestions in terms of arranging/designing a space for these three ground covers in a single area? We are thinking about using all three of these ground covers in our front yard but we do not know if it will be too overwhelming to the eye.

    Let me briefly discribe our front yard. Imagine a small space of 16 feet by 22 feet with a small-medium size tree (God knows which kind)in the middle. We also have a big maple three right across the street side walk that makes our front yard partially shaded.

    Thank you for any help you might be able to provide.

  19. Rosaura – how nice to meet you. My suggestion is to stick to one type of groundcover. You wouldn't believe the number of gardeners who have asked me how to kill the pachysandra they regretfully planted in the vinca bed, or how to irradicate vinca from an ivy bed. Mixed groundcovers tend to produce a nervous picture; not one of quiet calm.

    Anyway, let me know what you decide. And, do sign up for my email updates, for more gardening tips and hints.

  20. Rosaura from NY says:

    Thank yor for your advice! Well, before we got your reply we planted some Pachysandra around the tree in the center of our front yard since we already had some clipings from a friend(talk about being impulsive and a novice at gardening!). At one corner of the yard we already had planted some Vinca Minor (last week). I think we are sticking with two types of ground covers instead of three. Thank you.

  21. Lisa says:

    Good Morning Kevin,

    I have an area that I would like to plant Boston Ivy. The area to be planted is covered with grass and has 3 medium sized maples. The hope is to have the ivy cover the entire area and grow up the tree and over the iron fence eliminating the need to mow this section of lawn. Do I need to remove all the grass first? It is a substantial section. Thanks Kevin.

  22. Lisa – you will want to remove all of the grass first. But what a romantic look you'll achieve when the ivy spreads and climbs! Go for it!

  23. To solve this issue is the only way I see it, I don't want a problem just the facts.

  24. Pam Russell says:

    I too love “Pachy” as I affectionately call it. I have both types of light, dappled shade/sun and full sun. and it does fantastic in both. The sun area is right near my hose station so it gets more moisture than the shaded area. My daughters Puggle also loves the Pachy sun area and always steps in and urinates, but the plants never seem to be bothered.
    I just pulled up some plants, cut them to about 3 inches, put them in a bucket of water for a couple days and just stuck them in a newly planted area with fluffy potting mix added to the existing dirt. Two days later the new plantings are stitting straight up and looking good ! I also have some perennials and a Endless Summer Hydrangea that are planted right in with the beds and they do well.

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  26. sandy says:

    I have a sloped large backyard that goes down to a moving drainage stream. very moist and hard to mow so I want to plant vinca groundcover. will it fill in over one season? do I need to remove all the grass? should I dig it out or kill it with grass killer? what works best to kill the grass? your advice is appreciated. any suggestions on how to keep it from invading neighbors yard?? I know, a lot of ?????’s. thanks so much.
    sandy

  27. Sue says:

    Does anyone know how to get the grass to stop growing in my ground cover? Grass has taken over my bed of Archangel!

  28. Susan says:

    Awesome information about the vinca, I’m so glad I came across. I was trying to figure out what ground cover with blue flowers I could find for one of my garden paths and I believe this will be perfect.

  29. Ruth Winningham says:

    some critter is biting off the stems of my Pachysandra and leaving the plant on the ground .How do I get rid of these guys? They are fairly new plants and I am keeping them watered every other day–toomuch water? I will be thankful for your advise, Ruth

  30. Jess says:

    Looks like small marijuana plants growing in that garden :)

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  34. Can I plant vinca minor around my concrete foundation

  35. Can I plant vinca minor along my concrete foundation

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  39. Mark says:

    so I have a hill that is steep and is about 23′ wide x 45′ long. it was grass, so I turned it all over (greenside down). I’ve planted about 100 “borrowed” vinca plants and sowed them everywhere – all within 2′ of each other. also have planted 5 tamarac trees on the hill, some day lilleys, hostas, etc.

    how long (years) do you think before I have full coverage with the vinca

  40. Mark – Since you planted your vinca stems so closely together, you should have substantial coverage in 1-2 years. Keep the vines watered until they become established.

  41. Mark says:

    excellent. thanks Kevin. I was ripping them out by the garbage bag full at my source, there was so much. I had someone give me a couple of small cuttings with a yellow leaf. they indicated they’re a rarer type. ever seen or heard of them ?

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] Vinca would be my first pick- it blooms pretty small purple flowers. Pachysandra I personally don't care for (because everyone in my neighborhood has it) but is super hardy and seems to grow taller than the vinca and ivy… here's a website on no fail ground cover No-Fail Ground Covers: Pachysandra, Vinca Minor and Boston Ivy [...]

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